|Gamma Pi Brothers gathered outside the facility|
(photo by Bro Raphael Terrell)
Father's Day weekend turned out to be special for some of the most forgotten and overlooked young males in the DMV area who are locked away from mainstream society. At a time when fathers are looking forward to spending time with their own children and grandchildren, the men of Gamma Pi struck out from home early on the morning of June 20, the day before Father's Day, and headed inside the closed Cheltenham Youth Facility to interact with the young men being held there as juvenile offenders.
For many of the youth, it was as close as they would ever come to being with their fathers on Father's Day. As in recent years since the project started, Gamma Pi used the visit to share knowledge with the incarcerated young men about how to look at their detention as a new starting point to dream, build and conduct productive lives in the larger community when they get the opportunity to leave the facility. It was an opportunity to show them how to "man up" about their lives and take responsibility.
|This staged image was used to generate discussion|
about perception and stereotypes at Cheltenham on June 20
Because the young men are in a secured facility with armed guards, entry is restricted. No cameras or recording equipment are allowed on the property. Once inside, the electronic gates topped with barbed wire are slammed shut behind the visitors just like the penal facilities we see on TV. The youth are housed in a collection of small cottages behind the iron perimeter gates where the doors are locked to outside entry and exit and all activities take place under the watchful eye of the guards.
Brothers could not just walk into the Cheltenham yard. Each member of the chapter involved in the project had to pass through a security checkpoint individually, shedding phones and electronics, much like boarding an airplane. After all, many of the youth have been brought in on violent offenses, so it is not like visiting young men at your neighborhood recreation center. Many of the young men are judged incorrigible. But to the Brothers of Gamma Pi, it is about hope and never giving up on anyone, especially on young black males, who make up the large majority of Cheltenham's population which in many respects mirrors the adult male prison population.
On a day when The Super Chapter had its monthly chapter meeting and annual elections, the Brothers arose and met at Cheltenham at 7:45 a.m. to start the day.
|Image from PowerPoint|
Gamma Pi men are realistic about the experience and know that even in a daylong series of information sessions and discussions, lives cannot be turned around, But if the right words are said to catch the attention of just one individual, the process of rehabilitation can begin, not just for that one young man but perhaps others who are observing as well.
The theme for this year's visit was "Perception." More specifically, the young men, as young as age 13, were asked how they thought they were viewed by the outside world. The question was posed to the young men in a PowerPoint presentation that kicked off a discussion about self-image and self pride. Led by Brother Otis Fowler, who has headed the excursion in the past couple of years, Gamma PI Brothers, more than 50 strong in attendance, displayed a series of negative images to the youth to get reactions from them about how perception works.
|What do people see when they meet well-dressed black men?|
"We talked about how an image can be viewed from different perspectives and the meaning or thoughts generated can be totally different. Also, this presentation examined a few stereotypes and then asks the questions: What do you see when you see people? What do people see when they see you?," said Brother Fowler, who was bestowed Gamma Pi's Founders' Award at the Achievement Week observance in November.
"I think these young men have a different idea of what manhood is, and we offer them a better description of what manhood is and should be. We don't have to wear a suit and tie to be a better definition of what manhood is and should be."
The chapter may have gotten the young men to sit up and take notice with jaw-dropping statistics about crime and violence: African American make up 13% of the population but commit more than half of all murders and 93% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks.
|Another image used in discussion|
The Cheltenham effort began in 2011 as a joint effort of Gamma Pi and other local fraternity chapters as well as the Groove Phi Groove social fellowship. Brothers Greg Crawley and Terry Rogers, who served as Social Action chairman at the time, spearheaded the inaugural effort. As the years have gone by, Gamma Pi has taken on the Cheltenham project single-handedly.
Clearly, there is a need for the project: "I can't count the number of times I heard from Brothers that we MUST come out more than once a year," said Brother Fowler. "I have already begun discussions with the staff at Cheltenham for us to visit more often. I'll be forming a committee to develop discussion topics, events and other activities, I'll be calling on Brothers for support!"
|Bro Fowler receiving the 2014 Founders' Award|
Watch the "5 Minutes with Gamma Pi" video below on The Cheltenham Project by Bro. Courtland Smith